February 16, 2013

Mariner 10's Portrait of Venus

On February 5, 1974, Mariner 10 took this first close-up photo of Venus. 

Made using an ultraviolet filter in its imaging system, the photo has been color-enhanced to bring out Venus's cloudy atmosphere as the human eye would see it. Venus is perpetually blanketed by a thick veil of clouds high in carbon dioxide and its surface temperature approaches 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Launched on November 3, 1973 atop an Atlas-Centaur rocket, Mariner 10 flew by Venus in 1974. 

Image Credit: NASA
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2443.html

February 15, 2013

Massive Star Makes Waves

The giant star Zeta Ophiuchi is having a "shocking" effect on the surrounding dust clouds in this infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Stellar winds flowing out from this fast-moving star are making ripples in the dust as it approaches, creating a bow shock seen as glowing gossamer threads, which, for this star, are only seen in infrared light. 

Zeta Ophiuchi is a young, large and hot star located around 370 light-years away. It dwarfs our own Sun in many ways -- it is about six times hotter, eight times wider, 20 times more massive, and about 80,000 times as bright. Even at its great distance, it would be one of the brightest stars in the sky were it not largely obscured by foreground dust clouds. 

This massive star is travelling at a snappy pace of about 54,000 mph (24 kilometers per second), fast enough to break the sound barrier in the surrounding interstellar material. Because of this motion, it creates a spectacular bow shock ahead of its direction of travel (to the left). The structure is analogous to the ripples that precede the bow of a ship as it moves through the water, or the sonic boom of an airplane hitting supersonic speeds. 

The fine filaments of dust surrounding the star glow primarily at shorter infrared wavelengths, rendered here in green. The area of the shock pops out dramatically at longer infrared wavelengths, creating the red highlights. A bright bow shock like this would normally be seen in visible light as well, but because it is hidden behind a curtain of dust, only the longer infrared wavelengths of light seen by Spitzer can reach us. 

Bow shocks are commonly seen when two different regions of gas and dust slam into one another. Zeta Ophiuchi, like other massive stars, generates a strong wind of hot gas particles flowing out from its surface. This expanding wind collides with the tenuous clouds of interstellar gas and dust about half a light-year away from the star, which is almost 800 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto. The speed of the winds added to the star’s supersonic motion result in the spectacular collision seen here. 

Our own Sun has significantly weaker solar winds and is passing much more slowly through our galactic neighborhood so it may not have a bow shock at all. NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft are headed away from the solar system and are currently about three times farther out than Pluto. They will likely pass beyond the influence of the Sun into interstellar space in the next few years, though this is a much gentler transition than that seen around Zeta Ophiuchi. For this Spitzer image, infrared light at wavelengths of 3.6 and 4.5 microns is rendered in blue, 8.0 microns in green, and 24 microns in red. 

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spitzer/multimedia/pia16604.html

February 14, 2013

The Cosmic Hearth

The Orion Nebula is featured in this sweeping image from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellation of Orion is prominent in the evening sky throughout the world from about December through April of each year. The nebula (also catalogued as Messier 42) is located in the sword of Orion, hanging from his famous belt of three stars. The star cluster embedded in the nebula is visible to the unaided human eye as a single star, with some fuzziness apparent to the most keen-eyed observers. Because of its prominence, cultures all around the world have given special significance to Orion. The Maya of Mesoamerica envision the lower portion of Orion, his belt and feet (the stars Saiph and Rigel), as being the hearthstones of creation, similar to the triangular three-stone hearth that is at the center of all traditional Maya homes. The Orion nebula, lying at the center of the triangle, is interpreted by the Maya as the cosmic fire of creation surrounded by smoke. 

This metaphor of a cosmic fire of creation is apt. The Orion nebula is an enormous cloud of dust and gas where vast numbers of new stars are being forged. It is one of the closest sites of star formation to Earth and therefore provides astronomers with the best view of stellar birth in action. Many other telescopes have been used to study the nebula in detail, finding wonders such as planet-forming disks forming around newly forming stars. WISE was an all-sky survey giving it the ability to see these sites of star formation in a larger context. This view spans more than six times the width of the full Moon, covering a region nearly 100 light-years across. In it, we see the Orion nebula surrounded by large amounts of interstellar dust, colored green. 

Astronomers now realize that the Orion nebula is part of the larger Orion molecular cloud complex, which also includes the Flame nebula. This complex in our Milky Way Galaxy is actively making new stars. It is filled with dust warmed by the light of the new stars within, making the dust glow in infrared light. 

Color in this image represents specific infrared wavelengths. Blue represents light emitted at 3.4-micron wavelengths and cyan (blue-green) represents 4.6 microns, both of which come mainly from hot stars. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebulae, appear green and red. Green represents 12-micron light and red represents 22-micron light. 

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/WISE/multimedia/pia16684.html

February 13, 2013

W49B: Rare Explosion May Have Created Our Galaxy's Youngest Black Hole

The highly distorted supernova remnant shown in this image may contain themost recent black hole formed in the Milky Way Galaxy. The image combines X-rays from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory in blue and green, radio data from the NSF's Very Large Array in pink, and infrared data from Caltech's Palomar Observatory in yellow.

The remnant, called W49B, is about a thousand years old, as seen from Earth, and is at a distance of about 26,000 light years away.

The supernova explosions that destroy massive stars are generally symmetrical, with the stellar material blasting away more or less evenly in all directions. However, in the W49B supernova, material near the poles of the doomed rotating star was ejected at a much higher speed than material emanating from its equator. Jets shooting away from the star's poles mainly shaped the supernova explosion and its aftermath.

By tracing the distribution and amounts of different elements in the stellar debris field, researchers were able to compare the Chandra data to theoretical models of how a star explodes. For example, they found iron in only half of the remnant while other elements such as sulfur and silicon were spread throughout. This matches predictions for an asymmetric explosion. Also, W49B is much more barrel-shaped than most other remnants in X-rays and several other wavelengths, pointing to an unusual demise for this star.

The authors also examined what sort of compact object the supernova explosion left behind. Most of the time, massive stars that collapse into supernovas leave a dense spinning core called a neutron star. Astronomers can often detect these neutron stars through their X-ray or radio pulses, although sometimes an X-ray source is seen without pulsations. A careful search of the Chandra data revealed no evidence for a neutron star, implying an even more exotic object might have formed in the explosion, that is, a black hole.

This may be the youngest black hole formed in the Milky Way galaxy, with an age of only about a thousand years, as viewed from Earth (i.e., not including the light travel time). A well-known example of a supernova remnant in our Galaxy that likely contains a black hole is SS433. This remnant is thought to have an age between 17,000 and 21,000 years, as seen from Earth, making it much older than W49B.

The new results on W49B, which were based on about two-and-a-half days of Chandra observing time, appear in a paper in the February 10, 2013 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. The authors of the paper are Laura Lopez, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz from the University of California at Santa Cruz, Daniel Castro, also of MIT, and Sarah Pearson from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al.; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA
Explanation from: http://chandra.harvard.edu/photo/2013/w49b/

Stratocumulus Clouds over Pacific

Stratocumulus Clouds over Pacific

On January 4, 2013 a large presence of stratocumulus clouds was the central focus of camera lenses which remained aimed at the clouds as the Expedition 34 crew members aboard the International Space Station flew above the northwestern Pacific Ocean about 460 miles east of northern Honshu, Japan. This is a descending pass with a panoramic view looking southeast in late afternoon light with the terminator (upper left). The cloud pattern is typical for this part of the world. The low clouds carry cold air over a warmer sea with no discernable storm pattern.

Image Credit: NASA
Explanation from: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/multimedia/gallery/iss034e016601.html

February 12, 2013

The Milky Way seen over Ontario

Milky Way Ontario

Sometimes, after your eyes adapt to the dark, a spectacular sky appears. Such was the case earlier July 2008 over Ontario, Canada, when part of a spectacular sky also became visible in a reflection off a lake. To start, the brightest objects visible are bright stars and the planet Jupiter, seen as the brightest spot on the upper left. A distant town appears as a diffuse glow over the horizon. More faint still, the disk of the Milky Way Galaxy becomes apparent as a dramatic diffuse band across the sky that seems to crash into the horizon far in the distance. In the foreground, a picturesque landscape includes trees, a lake, and a stone wall. Finally, on this serene night in July when the lake water was unusually calm, reflections appear. Visible in the lake are not only reflections of several bright stars, but part of the Milky Way band itself. Careful inspection of the image will reveal, however, that bright stars leave small trails in the lake reflections that do not appear in the sky above. The reason for this is because this image is actually a digital composite of time-consecutive exposures from the same camera. In the first set of exposures, sky images were co-added with slight rotations to keep the stars in one place.

Image Credit & Copyright: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
Explanation from: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080729.html

February 11, 2013

Reflections on the Horsehead Nebula

Sculpted by stellar winds and radiation, a magnificent interstellar dust cloud by chance has assumed this recognizable shape. Fittingly named the Horsehead Nebula, it is some 1,500 light-years distant, embedded in the vast Orion cloud complex. About five light-years "tall", the dark cloud is cataloged as Barnard 33 and is visible only because its obscuring dust is silhouetted against the glowing red emission nebula IC 434. Contrasting blue reflection nebula NGC 2023 is visible on the lower left. In this gorgeous color image, both Horsehead and NGC 2023 seem to be caught in beams of light shining from above - but the beams are actually just internal reflections from bright star Sigma Orionis, just off the upper edge of the view.

Image Credit & Copyright: Daniel Verschatse
Explanation from: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap051130.html

February 10, 2013

Earthrise seen from the Moon

Apollo 11, Orbit of the Moon
July 24, 1969

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Images Credit: NASA